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US Industry Resists Fuel Efficiency Standards

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release May 2, 2005

Industry Resists Fuel Efficiency Standards Making U.S. Increasingly Dependent on Foreign Oil

- Interview with Jim Motavalli, editor of E: The Environmental Magazine, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

The Bush White House has been attempting to get an energy bill through Congress for the past four years. It came one step closer when the House approved the most recent version in mid-April. The bill is full of tax breaks for the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries, while providing miniscule support for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. The legislation calls for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and protects oil companies that manufactured the toxic fuel additive MTBE that were the targets of lawsuits. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Democratic critics say a major weakness of the legislation is its failure to set stricter vehicle fuel economy standards in order to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards were established by Congress in the 1970s in response to the Arab oil embargo and a spike in gasoline prices. CAFE standards have changed very little over the past three decades, and are now 27.5 miles per gallon for automobiles, and 20.7 for light trucks, with the standard for trucks rising only slightly by 2007.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Jim Motavalli, editor of E: The Environmental Magazine, who has written extensively on environmental and transportation issues. He talks about why the CAFE standards have remained static, and lays out an alternative to the policies put forward by the Bush administration.

JIM MOTAVALLI: Congress has generally been loathe to increase the standards for cars and light trucks, largely because they are beholden to largesse from the auto industry. The auto industry hates regulation in any form, and it’s gone to court to try to stop all the various state regulations that try to increase fuel efficiency and reduce tail pipe emissions. There have been many bills to increase corporate average fuel economy, and I believe John Kerry was on the record as saying it should average about 40 miles per gallon. And certainly the auto industry is capable of building cars that get 40 miles per gallon, but that’s not how it’s worked out in practice. In practice, the industry has backslid on fuel economy. The cars being produced today are less fuel-efficient than cars going to junkyards. If you look at the cars produced in the '70s, when CAFÉ was first enacted, they were built in response to the energy crisis and the Arab oil embargo, and were consequently more fuel-efficient than the ones we have today, even though technology has moved forward rather rapidly. And of course, the spread of SUVs has greatly affected fuel economy in the negative.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Right, because they’re considered trucks, not cars, correct?

JIM MOTAVALLI: Yes, SUVs are classified as trucks and that therefore enables them to meet a lower standard, the standard for trucks is 20.7 mpg. Actually, even worse than that is that vehicles that are classified as heavy trucks, which are 8,500 pounds or more, are exempt from the fuel economy standards in total. So the larger SUVs, which include like the Ford Excursion or the Hummer ? these are not even regulated by CAFÉ.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I’ve read that sales of the biggest SUVs have dropped off in the past year.

JIM MOTAVALLI: Well, one of the biggest reasons that Detroit is suffering right now is because of a drop-off in sales of large SUVs ? the Hummers, and Excursions and Yukons. These vehicles are not selling well. And, unfortunately, if you look at the bottom line for companies like Ford, or GM or Daimler-Chrysler, they're very dependent on selling SUVs, particularly large ones, because they have the largest profit margin. These companies make something like $8,000 to $10,000 apiece on the sale of large SUVs, so they’re almost like junkies addicted to the selling of large SUVs. They really have no response to it other than to rush forward the next generation of large SUVs. They think they’re going to get people back into the showrooms, but I think there’s probably been a permanent turning away from large SUVs, and the current fuel crisis ? the high prices are affecting everybody, and the pain is particularly felt by people with these gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

President Bush has decided that the key to our energy future is to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR. And all the oil experts say that at best there’s a six-month supply of oil in ANWR ? it would be a totally stop-gap measure. We can achieve much better benefit by reducing our consumption of oil. That’s really the only way we can address the crisis as it exists today. And switching to hybrid cars, which I think a lot of people are doing ? the Toyota Prius has been a huge hit, the Honda Accord and Civic hybrids have been very successful ? and this has caused Detroit, belatedly, to jump on the hybrid bandwagon, although I would say their approach is probably the wrong one, because they’re building large SUV hybrids that really don’t get that good gas mileage overall. But that’s one of the things we can do. We have to lessen consumption, and that involves building public transit, which a lot of cities are also doing, and driving less. One of the reasons we’re consuming more foreign oil than ever before is that on average, Americans drive a lot more. If we switched to much more fuel-efficient cars, if we followed the CAFÉ standards to 40 mpg, for instance, we could greatly reduce, if not eliminate, our dependence on foreign oil. We’re more foreign-oil dependent than ever. Well, more than half the oil used is imported, and it’s soared to new highs under the Bush administration.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It’s interesting that by increasing CAFÉ standards we’d greatly reduce our dependence on oil, foreign or domestic, and at the same time, we’d clean up a huge chunk of our air pollution. I know that eight or ten states around the country have already passed laws similar to those in California.

JIM MOTAVALLI: We’re looking at momentum toward a national clear car standard. It’s really pushed by California, not the federal government. It’s sort of an end run around Congress, you could say.

Jim Motavalli is author of "Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Change," published by Routledge. Call E Magazine at (203) 854-5559 or visit their website at

Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending May 6, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.



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